For Marvel Comics, every fan knows that the Silver Age began with the release of Fantastic Four #1 in November, 1961. But even as Mister Fantastic and his family were taking to the streets, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were retiring their first unsuccessful attempt at a modern serialized super hero: Doctor Droom, later known as Doctor Druid.
So who was this unknown super-failure? And why did he fail? Well, read on for more.
Droom first appeared on shelves in June, 1961– five months before the Fantastic Four would debut– in the pages of Amazing Adventures #1. Like most Marvel books at the time, Amazing Adventures was an anthology magazine where each issue contained several unrelated short stories. Most of the Marvel heroes of the 1960s would get their start in these anthology magazines, and Doctor Droom was no exception: Thor first appeared in Journey into Mystery, Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, and Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy.
Droom’s first appearance was his origin story: a successful American doctor travels to India to care of a dying Buddhist Lama after his colleagues refuse. On arriving, he is repeatedly given reasons to not continue: he is told that he will not be paid, then that he will have to work without his equipment, that he will have to walk across hot coals to get to his patient, and finally get past a wild animal. After putting his need to care for his patient above all else, he is granted an audience with the “dying” Lama (later revealed to be the “Ancient One” of the Doctor Strange stories) who tells him that he has been selected to help combat the evil mystic forces of the world. With the touch of the master’s hand, Droom was transformed into an Asian-looking man and his training could begin. If his origin story sounds familiar, that’s because Stan Lee would reuse much of the premise for Doctor Strange’s origin, two years later.
There is somewhat contradictory information about the creation of the character. Most sources say that he was created by Stan Lee, the editor-in-chief at Marvel at the time and involved in all projects, but only Jack Kirby was credited in the magazine itself. Other sources have Larry Lieber, Stan Lee’s brother, as the writer on the book and Doctor Droom’s other adventures. It is somewhat likely that (like many books at the time) the plotting was done by Lee, the shaping of that plot into art by Kirby, with dialog added by Lieber.
Droom’s subsequent adventures were somewhat less than stellar. Instead of embracing the mystic aspects of the character, those elements were toned down or eliminated altogether. In one issue, Droom even claimed that there was no such thing as magic! Instead of “magic”, Droom fought crime using other pseudo-sciences such as hypnotism and telepathy, plus a healthy dose of martial arts. In his second outing, Droom has to rescue a sunk ocean liner from a group of soldiers from Atlantis. How does he do it? He sneaks into their base using an early scuba system, knocks out some soldiers using judo, and then uses Atlantis’s ever-present viewscreens to hypnotize all the inhabitants to forget that there is anything of interest in the surface world. Droom’s subsequent adventures shed fantasy entirely as he combatted three separate alien invasions, one of which involved a politician magician from Saturn. Seriously.
Droom’s final appearance in the run would be Amazing Adventures #6 (after not appearing in #5), the same month that Fantastic Four debuted. The whole series was a dud, but only because the creators weren’t willing to embrace the premise. Perhaps black magic was a bit too much for the 1961 audience, compared to the refined taste of 1963? It’s impossible to say. When Doctor Strange came out a few years later, he was immediately pitted against mystical foes rather than unnamed alien races. Those adversaries played to his strengths and made the character unusual, but with Droom the mysticism hardly matters at all.
My favorite moment from the run is when Droom convinces an alien invasion fleet that construction vehicles, not people, were the dominant specie on the planet. He does this by banging on their space pod using a wrecking ball while confusing the inhabitants using his telepathy. Exactly how he knew they didn’t have the ability to just look outside, I have no idea, but it was a beautifully creative solution.
Droom’s adventures would be reprinted in the mid-70s in the Weird Wonder Tales anthology magazine, and he would prove popular enough to be readopted into the universe. His first new appearance was in Incredible Hulk #208 in 1977. Because of the similarity with “Doctor Doom”, the Fantastic Four enemy, he was renamed Doctor Druid in that and all subsequent appearances.
What makes Doctor Droom so intriguing is just how off the mark Lee/Lieber & Kirby would prove to be with this character. Marvel was almost unsinkable for most of the 1960s, releasing one brilliant new character after another: Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and many more were invented in rapid succession with nary a dud in the mix. And yet, that golden run of brilliant characters was started with this one, a dud named “Doctor Droom”.
Up next: Marvel’s second failure, Incredible Hulk #1 – #6.